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Book review: Kent Haruf's 'Benediction' once again brings small town to life

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In the first few pages of “Benediction,” Kent Haruf's splendid new novel, we learn that 77-year-old Dad Lewis — the longtime owner of a small-town hardware store who has lung cancer — will be dead before the summer is over.

Set in 2003 in Haruf's own Yoknapatawpha County — the fictional town of Holt, on Colorado's eastern plains — “Benediction” takes us through that last summer in Dad's life.

As he did in “Plainsong” (1999) and “Eventide” (2004), Haruf adopts a kaleidoscopic approach, slowly unfolding the lives of other characters, as well — and often presenting them through a close, third-person voice that allows us inside their thoughts while preserving Haruf's laconic, plain-spoken style.

As Dad lies awake at night — “remembering everything, taking all of his years into account” — Haruf unspools his story. Dad's memories pay no heed to chronology. Instead, we join Dad in reliving those sharp-edged pieces of his past that still live most fully — often because they involve unsettled accounts.

There's Dad's onetime store clerk and that clerk's family, whose lives take a dramatic turn when Dad catches the clerk stealing and runs him out of town. There's Dad's son, Frank, whom he lost when Frank was still a boy and whom he has not seen in years. And there are Dad's long-dead parents, whom he himself left behind in Kansas, along with his bleak Dust Bowl childhood.

The picture that gradually forms is of a good, but flawed, man — much too hard, but also scrupulously fair, still in love with his wife and his 50something daughter, but also acutely aware that he was often too busy running his store to give them all they needed. Because he never wasted a minute, he has not always used his time wisely, and he knows it.

Shunning the sentimental, Haruf gives all of this to us straight, in the same sort of terse, matter-of-fact way that Dad understands himself. Haruf treats all of his characters with similar respect — allowing us to grasp more of who they are precisely because he says less.

As the expertly crafted structure of “Benediction” emerges, it becomes clear that these many other characters — ranging from a lonely and orphaned girl who “was maybe 8 years old” to a woman older than Dad himself — themselves trace the arc of a life, much as Haruf did in moving between the young boys and the elderly bachelors in “Plainsong.”

The characters in “Benediction” include an infatuated couple who want to get hitched, as well as a worn-down wife who concludes that “love doesn't last.” They include women in their 70s and 80s who stayed married until their spouses died — and their aging daughters, for whom love has proved elusive.

We listen to an idealistic minister, preaching the gospel of love, and watch hate-filled townspeople who turn against him as a result. We hear about one suicide and watch preparations for another, while also bearing witness to unbearable tenderness. Between three older women and a young girl. The minister and his son. Dad and his wife and daughter.

“Only your mother and I know all of it,” the minister cautions his son, with regard to the story of his fractured marriage. “And we each know parts the other doesn't know.”

The same goes for all of Holt's inhabitants. Haruf gives us pieces of their stories, even as he gently reminds us that none of us can ever know all of what the minister aptly describes as “ordinary lives, passing without their knowing it.”

There's echoes of Thornton Wilder in that phrase, and it's Grover's Corners or the Maine coast of Sarah Orne Jewett's “The Country of the Pointed Firs” that “Benediction” calls to mind, as we join Dad in his deepening appreciation for those around him, while counting down the remaining hours, in his life and our own.

Mike Fischer is a staff writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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